05/03/2016 9:21AM

Fornatale: Playing to your strengths


To some, Secretariat was just the 1 horse.

Horse racing is capable of being both a great gambling game and a wonderful sport. In its best moments, it succeeds at both. Some racegoers fall neatly into one bucket or the other, gamblers or fans, while the majority exist within the Venn diagram in the middle.

The same dynamic exists within the world of contest play. There are some players who love racing, and contest play is as much as anything a vehicle for them to follow their favorite sport. Others, like Anthony Trezza, come to the world of contests through other games – in his case fantasy sports – and while he appreciates the beauty of the game and the magnificence of its equine protagonists, those things aren’t what drew him in.

I’ve written before about the idea of handicappers for courses in terms of different contest formats. Some players – you think of Tommy Massis – are wired for live-bankroll play. Other players understand the quirks of a particular format and devise a strategy to give them an edge, like Paul Shurman in the old NYRA format, where he was almost always drawing live to cash going to the last leg.

There is another way to look at handicappers for courses. Some players do better on racing’s biggest days, like this coming Saturday at Churchill Downs, others prefer the meat-and-potatoes racing common in the DRF universe on Sundays.

One of the best tournament players I know, Brent Sumja, has told me on many occasions that he prefers everyday racing to stakes. He’s a sheets-oriented player with the ability to think like the trainer he used to be, and he comes up with scores of mid-priced winners. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate good horses or the sport itself, he just does better in his gambling with more modest racing.

Other players prefer racing’s biggest days. Joe Pettit, the handicapping haberdasher, falls in this group. The tear that put him on the contest world map happened in the midst of the Saratoga meeting, and he struck gold again this year on a couple of the key Saturdays for Kentucky Derby prep races.

“I seem to do better with good-quality racing,” he said, “I just prefer handicapping those races.”

Last year’s National Handicapping Tour winner Jonathon Kinchen had two of his contest wins last year on big days, and crushed the pick six on last year's Derby Day in his cash betting. His preference for stakes racing comes down to a simple factor.

“I like all the information that’s available on big days," he explained while on a plane bound to take him to this year’s Derby. "It helps me understand the story of the individual horses better. Take Tepin, for example. I was able to single her on Derby Day with confidence because I knew from the workout report that she had just outworked a Derby horse, Danzig Moon, on the dirt. And with American Pharoah, you knew that people who clock horses for a living said he had just had one of the best workouts in the history of Churchill Downs. That makes it a lot easier to single the favorite.”

Another example he cited was Frosted, whom Kinchen used in tournaments the day the horse won the Wood last year.

“You knew from reading the Racing Form that he had had a breathing operation and that explained his bad race in the Florida Derby,” he said. “With cheaper horses, they might show a bad race and you have no idea why; you just have to guess, and I don’t like to guess.”

I think that one of the most underrated factors in whether a horseplayer is having success is game selection. Cash betters need to be playing the right circuits, at the right times of year, in the right pools. Contest players need to be aware in the same way. In addition to choosing the right tournament formats, they should also be paying attention to the makeup of the races themselves. You should choose the contests you play; don’t let the contests choose you.